Single-use plastic: unflushables

Date published: 
14 August 2018

Key facts

  • Thames Water removes 30 tonnes of unflushable material every day from one of its sites. It unclogs five house blockages every hour from London’s sewers, a 30 per cent increase from last year. Sewage blockages cost Thames Water and ultimately consumers £12 million a year.
  • Waste authorities collect more than 100,000 tonnes of nappy waste a year. The majority will be sent for incineration, adding to London’s carbon emissions and polluting the air.
  • Nappies that go to landfill take around 400 years to disintegrate.
  • Across the UK, over 11 billion wet wipes, nearly 2.5 billion period products, nearly 4 billion nappies and over a billion incontinence products are purchased every year. These numbers are growing – wipes by over a quarter, and incontinence products by nearly half, compared with five years ago.
  • There is no legal requirement for manufacturers to list materials on the packaging of products. Tampons contain 5 per cent plastic, period pads contain 90 per cent plastic and nappies contain an estimated 50 per cent plastic and similar materials.
     

Key findings

  • Millions of unflushables are used, and disposed of, every day in London. Disposable wet wipes, nappies and period products are convenient, effective and popular, but these products cause significant environmental damage when incorrectly disposed of. 
  • Like all single-use products, unflushables waste natural resources – particularly when they are not recycled or reused. They also contain large amounts of plastic, which increases the damage they cause. 
  • Wet wipes and period products are often flushed down the toilet, where they combine with fat and oil to create fatbergs and sewer blockages. Those that escape into the wider environment cause further damage – the extent of this damage is still unknown. 
  • Nappies are either sent for incineration—contributing to local air pollution—or dumped as landfill. 

 
 

Recommendations

  • The Mayor and Thames Water should introduce a ‘block buster borough’ initiative, to get councils to pledge that unflushables don’t enter the sewage system and reusables are promoted where possible. ‘Bin it, don’t block it’ signage could be displayed on the backs of public toilets. 
  • The Mayor’s London Healthy Schools initiative should ask schools to demonstrate that they are period positive, in order to reduce stigma and inform children about binning not flushing, and reusable period products as an alternative.
  • The Mayor should write to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs requesting a statutory format to display proper disposal information and the presence of plastic in products.
  • The Greater London Authority (GLA) Group should provide bins in men’s toilets for incontinence and other unflushable single-use products, as currently bins are only in female toilets. 

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